When Sensei Stanley Pranin passed away in March 2017, the world of Aikido suffered a tremendous loss. Not only was he revered for his skill and knowledge as an accomplished aikido Sensei but also as one of its finest historians with his publication “Aikido Journal”. His successor is none other than Josh Gold, 4th Dan and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo. Based in Irvine, California, Josh established the school with his Sensei and mentor, Haruo Matsuoka (a former student of Steven Seagal) and their teacher/disciple relationship is likened to that of Daniel and Mr Miyagi or even Caine and Master Po from the hit TV series, “Kung Fu”.
With his master at his side, Josh has run Ikazuchi as not only an Aikido dojo but through his extensive knowledge of digital technology, created a research and development hub, working with some of the world’s biggest names in martial arts. His R&D programs are revolutionising the way martial arts are taught, conveyed and understood in an ever-changing modern world, making him the ideal successor to Sensei Pranin’s phenomenal Aikido legacy that is “Aikido Journal”.
Josh has very kindly taken some time out from his busy schedule to speak to Kung Fu Kingdom about his life, accomplishments as well as share some of his profound thoughts on Aikido’s evolution and perception in the global martial arts community.
Hi Josh, thanks for spending some time with us for this interview. Have you had a chance to look at our site?
I have and it looks great!
Thank you, pleased to hear that! So just for a bit of background, when and where were you born?
I was born in 1971 in Los Angeles, USA.
What’s your height and weight?
I am 5’ 9” (1.75m) and 135lbs (62kg).
How old were you when you first took up aikido?
I was 19 years-old when I first started.
What was it about aikido that appealed to you?
The beauty and the power of aikido is something that really captivated me as well as the ukemi [break falls/rolling]. I thought that the falling techniques and movement capabilities of the practitioners were very impressive. People were connected, powerful, graceful, and precise. Other things that really resonated with me were the cooperative training system and the philosophy and core principles of the art.
That is, aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba’s philosophy of dealing with an attack without using aggression or force but with a more harmonious way to redirect an attack?
I think that’s one way of looking at it. However, the more I learn about the art of aikido, the more I realize how deep, complex, and nuanced Ueshiba’s philosophy really was. People like Peter Goldsbury and Ellis Amdur have really begun to open my eyes in this area.
Ellis had a decent amount of interaction with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Morihei’s son, and said he only saw him laugh out loud twice. Once was when someone at an event asked him when his father (Morihei Ueshiba) became a pacifist. Kisshomaru broke out in open laughter and assured the listeners that his father was never a pacifist. There’s a great article on Aikido Journal about this if you’re interested in digging a bit deeper. It’s pretty fascinating stuff if you’re into aikido.
Some would say that’s a contradiction in a martial art, to protect the attacker. How would you respond to people who don’t understand that notion?
In my understanding of aikido, it’s certainly possible to harm, or potentially even kill an attacker. I don’t think those types of actions are things that should necessarily be excluded from a potential set of responses for an aikidoist. However, the goal is to use a proportional response to a situation and minimize harm to the attacker with the goal of restoring harmony.
If you’re in a situation where the threat level is relatively low, then you want to be able to respond in a measured way as opposed to blasting that person and creating unnecessary harm. There may be life-threatening situations where you or a loved one are attacked and you need to harm the aggressor. In other situations, you may even need to launch a preemptive strike to gain the initiative necessary to neutralize a threat in the most controlled way.
So, I think the idea is that in aikido, we have a technical and ethical system that encourages us to do the minimum amount of harm necessary to restore harmony and balance. We want to show compassion and care for our opponent(s). And if you think about this from a strategic standpoint, if you’re able to take an adversary and turn them into a friend (or at least someone less hostile) by demonstrating concern for their well-being, it’s a pretty wise approach that reduces the risk of future conflict and helps protect our society. It’s not always possible, but it’s an ideal we can strive for.
My Sensei used to call that taking the moral option: you know you could hurt your attacker, damage them even, but you choose the softer yet still effective option. Would you say that was an apt description?
Sure, I think that’s a great way of looking at it, and in certain respects it’s more difficult to respond that way, i.e. in a proportional way, where you do care about the result for the attacker.
It certainly is. Did you practice any other martial arts before aikido?
Not seriously. When I was nine or ten years-old I studied karate for a few months. It’s a fantastic martial art but it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time. I was essentially a complete novice when I started aikido.
Can you remember what style of karate you practiced?
It was Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate.
Interesting. So, generally how much time do you currently dedicate to training?
Including teaching and training time, it’s about 18 to 20 hours a week. It’s layered so that I teach some larger group classes and a few specialized small group training sessions. I also train a few people privately. I train too, not just teach. I take group classes, even those of the more junior instructors at Ikazuchi Dojo, the dojo I co-founded. I also have the opportunity to train outside of classes with our chief instructor Matsuoka Sensei. Additionally, I cross-train in Kali and I’m also working on building some very basic jiu jitsu skills. When I pull all those things together it’s probably close to 20 hours a week. Off the mat, I’m also spending about 10 hours a week reading, learning from videos, and having discussions with experts in the martial arts community.
A charmed life for a martial artist, pretty good going. Who would you credit as having most influenced you in aikido and who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures?
Without question, I’d say that Haruo Matsuoka is my strongest influence. He’s been my Sensei and mentor for over 27 years. He continues to inspire me and fuel my growth as a martial artist and a human being. Other inspirational figures would include Morihei Ueshiba (often referred to as O-Sensei) and Guro Dan Inosanto.
Dan is a legend in the martial arts world. His knowledge of martial arts is almost unmatched and his humility and philosophy have had a huge impact on my recent development as a martial artist. I also count Stanley Pranin as one of my major influences. Although I spent very little time learning from him directly, he opened doors for me to a new group of mentors that have really opened my eyes in a new way. The students of Ikazuchi Dojo inspire me as well. I learn from them and they motivate and inspire me.
A great list of names there, and to be inspired by one’s students is remarkable. You mentioned you and your Sensei, Haruo Matsuoka have been training together for over 27 years. What’s it like to learn from and train with someone as highly experienced as him?
It’s been phenomenal. Over the years, my relationship with Matsuoka has continued to change and evolve – it has been an amazing journey and he’s a fantastic mentor to me. I am so thankful for everything he’s done for me. He’s an amazing technician, but more than that, he’s helped me navigate through each phase of my development as a martial artist. He’s very proactive about leading me into that next phase when I am ready – even if I don’t think I am ready. He’s an amazing human being and has a very humble, seeking spirit. We’ve also partnered together to build Ikazuchi Dojo and it’s just been a wonderful experience.
Ideal. And what led you both to open Ikazuchi Dojo together?
I met Matsuoka Sensei in 1991 and at the time, he was the chief instructor of Steven Seagal’s Tenshin Dojo in Los Angeles. In 1998, Matsuoka parted ways with Seagal, who had been his first teacher. At that time, Matsuoka Sensei decided to move back to Japan and so he closed down the dojo. After that, many of the students from Tenshin Dojo would get together and continue to practice in community centres or throw down mats in a garage to practice.
We didn’t know when he would return so we continued on. A little more than a year later, in 1999, I sold a digital media company I had co-founded a few years earlier and I moved down to Orange County, about 40 miles away from Los Angeles. A few months after moving down, Matsuoka, whom I stayed in touch with via phone and email, mentioned to me that he was ready to move back, and that he would move to Irvine, in Orange County, because it has a very well-known and very highly-regarded school system.
I was thrilled as it was very close to where I was living. I knew he was far more interested in teaching and pursuing his own technical development than managing the business of a dojo. I was happy to take on that responsibility, so I essentially did a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ to get the dojo organized, lay down all the infrastructure and organizational stuff and focus on growing it so he could focus on developing himself and raising students.
What were the first couple of years of Ikazuchi Dojo like back then?
We took a very organic approach to it when he first came back. We initially secured some space at a local community centre. It was a very humble beginning. We’d have to lay down these blue fold-out mats; the mats were used for day care or kids’ activities during the day, so we’d unfold them and find them stained with fruit juice or covered in snack food crumbs. We’d have to wipe all that stuff down before every class. It wasn’t an optimal environment but that’s where we started. It was just Matsuoka Sensei, myself, and one or two other people.
Pretty soon people started to hear that Matsuoka Sensei was back in the United States teaching out of this community center. Then the students started to come. The group got bigger and bigger, and when we had a critical mass, we found a dedicated space across from a local university and then had a foundation to build on. Of course, we had all the standard growing pains that you go through when you start a new dojo.
We're looking for martial arts instructors with knife expertise (from any art) and aikido practitioners to give feedback on a series of new tanto-dori (knife defense) techniques and training methods we've been developing. You can learn more about the project in our newest blog post:http://ikazuchi.com/2017/02/06/a-call-for-feedback/
Posted by Ikazuchi Dojo on Tuesday, 7 February 2017
I can image. Now there’s no denying that amongst some in the global martial arts community aikido has a less-than-favourable reputation. What is it about aikido that some people don’t understand regarding its application on the mat or in a real-life situation?
This is a good question, and as the new, or relatively new executive editor for Aikido Journal, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I have quite a bit of visibility into this now and I really feel it’s my responsibility to better understand this challenge, and what the climate is in terms of the perception of aikido.
Most of the criticisms I’m aware of center around the martial effectiveness of aikido. In some instances, the criticisms are valid, but in others there are misconceptions that can be cleared up, so I’d like to invest some time in talking about this.
Yes of course, please do.
One issue is that when people outside of the aikido world look at our practice, they see a technical system that primarily uses very stylized or even symbolic attacks to set up defensive techniques. Nobody is going to raise their hand over their head and attack you with a Shomen-uchi [vertical forehead] strike. It’s extremely rare that somebody is going to grab your wrist and then wait for you to respond; that wrist grab is just going to be the first movement that leads into some sort of strike or grappling movement. So, this is one aspect that I think people in the global martial arts community look at and say, “well, aikido is not super relevant because practitioners do not train in realistic situations”.
Another issue is that people misunderstand the role of ukemi. You can find a lot of examples of aikido on the internet where you’ll see people reacting to a technique by falling for no apparent reason. It’s not that difficult for an experienced martial artist to tell when someone is really being thrown or when they’re just tanking it for show. You can find great examples on YouTube of aikido throws really working, where there’s no question the attacker’s balance is broken. But you can also find many examples of people falling or rolling when they still have their balance and/or there are obvious exit pathways to escape or counter a technique.
Sometimes this is done to train basic falling skills, sometimes it’s done as a connected movement exercise – and sometimes it’s just bad aikido. Without clarity and context, I can see why it’s so easy for some in the martial arts community to question aikido’s legitimacy. There are a few things that are important to understand about aikido that we, as a community, can do better at communicating.
Firstly, aikido is a martial art but it’s not a hardcore sport fighting art. That in no way diminishes the value of the art. Aikido is a practice that people can engage in at almost any age and at almost any fitness level. They can begin training and move into practice where they can really start to temper themselves in a martial way and enjoy the remarkable experience of transforming themselves into an authentic martial artist.
There are many people who would love to learn a martial art but don’t want to get hit in the face over and over again; they’re not interested in getting into a ring and fighting. For those people, aikido is something that they can embrace and integrate into their life. So, this is one thing that I think people need to understand about aikido: it’s not designed to be a hardcore fighting art sport and it’s not designed to perform in an optimum way in that environment.
There are some people who would then say, “Therefore, aikido doesn’t have any value from a self-defense perspective,” and I think that’s not right. If one takes a step back and looks at things in perspective, it becomes a bit clearer. When you have the threat of a physical confrontation it will essentially fall into one of a few general categories. It can be some sort of social violence – say, I am in a pub and somebody’s had a little too much to drink and then they get agitated, and you know how this goes. That’s one category, social violence, and I think the skills you learn in aikido can really help you manage those kinds of encounters well.
The strategy, social and technical skills an aikidoist possesses will give them a good chance to diffuse that situation without escalating to the point of serious violence. When you look at asocial violence or predatory violence, like stalking, mugging, or certain kinds of rape, the nature of the violence is different but the advantages of aikido still hold. Within this category of threats, when a predator is looking for a target –they’ve done a bunch of studies on this– they will almost inevitably stay away from people who are aware of their surroundings, have good posture, and have a confident and balanced walk.
These factors account for 90 percent of the evaluation criteria of predators determining if you’re a good target or not. The skills that aikido gives you to be able to navigate your surroundings with confidence, mindfulness, and poise can significantly reduce your risk of being a target, and so in this context aikido is great. You’ve just reduced your chances of ending up in a potentially high-risk and life-threatening encounter, significantly.
So, what are we left with in terms of violence, then? You’re left with situations where you’re a target for assassination or something like an active shooter/mass violence scenario. In those scenarios, whether you do MMA, BJJ, or aikido, I don’t know if it will make a huge difference in terms of your response capabilities.
The last non-obvious advantage of aikido is the falling skill we develop. People are way more likely in life to fall than they are to get attacked, and so aikido gives you a great tool set in life for protecting yourself from this kind of injury very effectively. Therefore, if we are talking about real self-defense – self-protection from common physical harm, not from a fighting competition – the falling skills an aikidoist develops really allow us to shine in this area.
All of the above points come into play in a way that’s designed to avoid or defuse a situation before physical violence or harm actually happens. And this really, is the highest form of self-defense or self-protection. If you talk to anyone that’s had exposure to real violence, they’ll tell you that regardless of skill, you want to avoid it if you can because physical violence is very unpredictable and very destructive.
Now, if a scenario actually gets to the point of a physical confrontation, some would say that aikido is far less effective when compared to something like MMA training. To that, I’d say that’s probably right. If you’re interested in investing in a lot of live sparring and getting hit a lot, in many cases you’ll perform better in a one-on-one fist fight on the street. But I also think it’s important to understand how contextual this stuff is.
I recently saw a video of some high-level MMA fighters that went to train at a US military martial arts academy. In one exercise, they just had to make it from point A to point B outdoors without “dying”. The MMA fighters would inevitably get a takedown on one opponent but would then be flanked and “killed” by other hidden or approaching opponents with weapons. A well-trained aikido practitioner with just a couple years’ experience would never make that mistake.
Here’s another example: if you put me in a ring with an MMA fighter with half my experience, I’ll almost certainly be completely dominated. Now take that same MMA fighter, who is used to operating in a space the size of a ring, and put them in a smaller, confined space, like an elevator. Then put a Kali practitioner with half the experience of that MMA fighter and put a simple pocket knife or even a ballpoint pen in the Kali person’s hand. I don’t think things would end well for the MMA guy.
In other words, every martial art is specialized and will be strong in some areas and weak in others.
One final point that’s not always clearly articulated is that aikido, and many other forms of budo, are not strictly designed to just be fighting systems. They’re far more than that. Guillaume Erard, a French aikido instructor living in Japan, wrote a fascinating article called “Real Fighting is not the Primary Purpose of Budo” for those that want to learn more.
Having spent some time explaining and contextualizing aikido’s approach, I’d also like to touch on the specific training methods and techniques within aikido as they relate to fighting.
Of course, by all means.
I think that if you practice only the core classical aikido techniques with a compliant partner, never practicing with a jab, cross, or a takedown, then you’re not going to be able to interact with other martial artists in a meaningful way or have effective self-defense responses to these kinds of threats. Having said that, many aikido practitioners really don’t care about this at all and that’s fine.
For those that do, it is possible to take the core classical techniques and training methods and build on top of them in a way that extends the system. You can make this stuff work against a range of attacks and with resisting partners. I’ve seen people that have done this successfully. Bruce Bookman Sensei from Seattle, Washington is one. He has almost 50 years of aikido experience and is also a BJJ black belt with over 20 years of experience. He’s also studied Western boxing, Muay Thai, and other disciplines, and he’s developed a really impressive system that gives an aikido practitioner tools and tactics to apply aikido against more sophisticated striking and grappling techniques. Aikido Journal Academy is now producing an online course with Bruce Bookman and I’m really excited to share it with the community once production is complete.
Sounds riveting, keep us in the loop! Staying on the theme of core principles and techniques, how about the use of Kote (pronounced: “ko-tie”, meaning ‘wrist practice’ or drills). Although it’s a very impractical and unlikely thing to happen, as you mentioned earlier, it’s still an important part of aikido development. However, I know some Senseis skip this and go straight to dealing with attack situations. What are your thoughts on the use of Kote as a part of aikido training?
I find that practicing techniques initiated from wrist grabs are a great learning tool. In essence, in aikido what we want to do is to break the opponent’s balance then control or throw them. So typically, in order to break that person’s balance, you need a point of contact, and so when you’re reacting to a wrist grab it gives you a nice static connection point to work with. You can then focus on how you can break balance and move into a throw or control. Then, later on, you can learn to establish that point of contact in a dynamic attack where somebody may be punching or kicking, etc.
The idea of being able to constrain variables and practice in scenarios where you have a consistent point of contact to work with is a great learning tool. Then at a more advanced level, when you think about applications, if you enter into some kind of engagement with someone, whether the other person executes a strike or grappling manoeuvre, or I choose to initiate with some kind of entry or atemi (strike) and the other person responds with a block of some kind, limbs are coming into contact. At that point, if you trained correctly, you’ll have a pathway to move into the techniques that you know, if that makes sense.
It certainly does. In fact, I have actually worked some aikido techniques into my karate practice – I find that I can lead my partner into a recognisable position that allows me to apply a sankyo hold and then follow into a strike or submission. Would you say that describes that sort of path you mentioned?
Exactly. I know of many karate and jiu jitsu practitioners who have success applying aikido techniques like sankyo or other wrist controls in live sparring situations. So, just to circle back on this for a moment, I think wrist grabs are an excellent learning tool, and they’re an important part of the classical aikido practice and tradition. However, I would say that for some of us, we may focus on it a little bit too much over the longer term to the exclusion of looking at aikido-based solutions to different attacks. There are pictures of the founder practicing techniques with a training partner wielding a rifle. If he were alive today, I’d have a hard time imagining that he wouldn’t be experimenting with ways to apply aikido to modern attacks.
This is all really fascinating. What about the Shomen-uchi or Yokomen-uchi [horizontal head] strikes based on sword movements – what role do they play in a person’s aikido development?
I learned Filipino Kali from Dan Inosanto. He explained to me that in their systems, whether using a stick, knife, sword, or empty hand, they work with 12 basic lines of attack. They include the same lines as Shomen-uchi and Yokomen-uchi strikes as well as a bunch of other angles (hook thrusts, etc). He told me that in the real world you’re not going to get one of these super clean lines of attack, but you’re educating your body to deal with certain attack vectors, to deal with force coming in from certain angles and lines.
I believe that’s the primary value of practicing with Shomen or Yokomen-uchi strikes. However, there are many more angles of attack that are beneficial to explore beyond these two. As with static wrist grabs, I think Shomen and Yokomen-uchi are good attacks to practice with and have an integral place in the classical aikido curriculum. However, for some, depending on their focus, the use of these two strikes might be a little over-weighted in the curriculum. For me personally, I’d like my aikido to be flexible enough that I can apply it to an uppercut, hook punch, an elbow strike, and other attack vectors beyond the Shomen and Yokomen angles.
That is interesting. Now anybody who’s passionate about aikido would have read or at the very least, heard of Aikido Journal, started by the late Stanley Pranin Sensei. How did you get involved in writing for Aikido Journal?
I first met Stanley Pranin at the Aiki Expo events that he produced, starting back in 2002. That was my first exposure to him and I saw him produce events where he brought together some of the world’s greatest martial artists at this huge venue with over 1,000 practitioners. He brought in classical swordsmen from Japan, the founder of Systema, one of the Machado brothers (legends in the BJJ community), a karate master and many others. So that was my first exposure to him, but I didn’t get to interact with him much until around 2012, when Stanley hosted a small aikido seminar in Las Vegas at his home.
The concept was to look at O-Sensei’s aikido and how it evolved over time. That sounded fascinating to me and I went out for the event. Stan and I kind of hit it off; we talked a lot and ended up collaborating on some small projects over the years. He asked me to contribute some articles, which I was honoured to do, and that’s how I started writing for Aikido Journal.
And of course, he visited Ikazuchi Dojo, which I read about. He was such a larger-than-life force in aikido. What was it like having him participate in your seminar?
I am so glad we were able to host him at Ikazuchi in 2016 before the decline in his health. It might have been the last time he travelled somewhere to teach or do this kind of event. We crafted the event a little differently than most aikido seminars. It wasn’t just a regular weekend seminar where you would have people show up and train. We set it up so that Stan would interview Matsuoka Sensei and then have three hours on the mat in a completely unstructured format. It was just Stan, myself, and Matsuoka Sensei, simply playing around on the mat.
They talked and exchanged ideas and I got to take ukemi from both of them, which was fantastic. We had a group Q&A session with Stan where all the students in our dojo had the opportunity to ask questions, as well as a small group session with Stan and the instructor team from Ikazuchi Dojo. So, we had all these things going on over the weekend and it was great. I found him to be very humble, very easygoing and incredibly knowledgeable – so much so that it was hard not to feel a little intimidated.
I can really imagine that. And sadly, we lost Pranin Sensei in March last year and you were then appointed Executive Editor of Aikido Journal. How was it decided that you were to take up the mantle?
I think it was January 2017 when Stan said he wasn’t feeling too great. At the time, he thought he had some kind of food poisoning, something that was relatively mild. Then a couple of weeks later, I got a call from a friend of his. He said that something’s terribly wrong, Stan was not doing well and had to be taken to the hospital. Stan told him that if he didn’t make it, he wanted to make sure I got the Aikido Journal archives which he’d built over a period of 43 years. Fortunately, Stan did make it past that episode, but he was diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer.
I went out to visit him in Las Vegas several times. We met and talked, and it was pretty clear he wanted me to take over Aikido Journal. He started giving me a tour of the archives, showing me where all the information was, briefing me on things and answering questions. He asked me to keep the journal running until hopefully he would recover, which I did. I continued to operate things and by the end it was pretty clear he wanted me to be the successor for Aikido Journal.
I suppose it was like he was passing this down to the next generation, now you’ve inherited this amazing legacy that is Aikido Journal.
It is an amazing legacy certainly, and initially I wasn’t sure why he chose me because there are far more senior-level people in the aikido world from a technical and leadership perspective. There are people he had known for much longer periods of time, but for some reason he asked me to take it on. After his passing and a period of mourning, I spent a lot of time working with the Pranin family and they were very supportive.
Profound…and good to hear this. So how has your involvement with Aikido Journal (as reader, writer, and executive editor) shaped and changed your perception of aikido?
It’s had a tremendous impact on my understanding of the art of aikido as well as the global aikido community. For the first 25 years of my aikido journey, I was mostly focused on a fairly microcosmic level, first as a student and then as a teacher and someone running a dojo. Within that environment, I felt I had a lot of experience – how you develop yourself as a student, how you develop other students, and how to run a dojo successfully. But once I became involved with Aikido Journal, all of a sudden, I had this macro view into the aikido world.
Now I have all this data, and so many lines of communication opened with so many senior-level leaders, dojo operators, and practitioners around the world. It really opened my eyes. I’ve become more acutely aware of some really significant problems and challenges in the aikido world. I’ve also discovered that there are some really great masters out there, some wonderful dojos, and legions of sincere practitioners. I’ve also come to believe that there is a lot of potential to unlock in the aikido world, so it’s been a fascinating educational process. I am humbled every day and learning so much as I go. I’m sure my views will continue to evolve. I feel like I’m just at the beginning of a new learning curve.
I can imagine. You also run a research and development program at Ikazuchi. What sort of things do you examine as part of that?
I’ll give you a few examples. One is we look at how technology can be used to improve martial arts training, communication, and community-building. We’ve experimented with next-generation motion capture systems to analyze bodily movements. You can really look at centers of gravity and balance and get to the point where you can objectively determine whether kuzushi (balance-breaking) actually happened, and if so, at what moment in the execution of a technique.
Because the system can pinpoint where that centre of gravity is in relationship to someone’s base of support, you can actually objectively calculate these things. We also use video capture for everything from storytelling to technical debriefs. We’re looking closely at how we can use technology to better improve instruction and transmission of the art as well as for communication and storytelling.
Another thing we do is focus on cross-training collaborations with people that are at the highest levels in other arts. Examples of this include Guro Dan Inosanto – who really needs no introduction – or Kenji Yamaki, a former Kyokushin Karate world champion. It’s not just about how we can tap into these people’s specialized knowledge, but also about how we can take aikido and share it with people at this level in a way that can benefit them. It’s a great way to build bridges of friendship, understanding, and respect across the greater martial arts community.
Superb. Now I watched with interest the “Death by Disarm” segment, as part of Ikazuchi R&D, featuring Jeff Imada. Tell us more about how you got Jeff involved and how that experience changed your view of knife (Tanto) defense within aikido.
I met Jeff Imada through Matsuoka Sensei. Jeff is Dan Inosanto’s most senior student; he has been so gracious with his time and sharing his knowledge. Being able to work with somebody who has that level of proficiency with the tanto – the knife – has really been eye-opening. Tanto-dori (knife control) is something that has been a part of aikido for a very long time. You can look back and see Tohei Sensei [10th Dan Koichi Tohei] in the 1950’s practicing with the tanto.
We mostly use the tanto, you could say, as an extension tool – I am going to take this wooden stick, hold it in my hand and project it like I would a punch to the abdomen or something like that. I think it’s fine to use it for that purpose, but I thought it would be really interesting to explore this at a little bit of a deeper level and think about how one could use aikido principles and movements to deal with a more sophisticated knife attack.
To be clear, I am not really looking at this so much from a knife defense perspective because the reality is that you always want to run from a knife. Dan Inosanto tells me this all the time. He says, “Look, even the best baseball players in the world are only hitting the ball 30 percent of the time.” If you actually end up in a real engagement with a knife, you want to do everything you can to run or improve your position with an improvised weapon, cover, etc.
Having said that, I think that to really look at sophisticated knife attacks and how we would deal with them from an aikido perspective is a fascinating thing to do and I believe it has genuinely helped me better understand aikido because a tanto, wielded proficiently, really throws a bunch of interesting challenges into the mix.
One challenge is that the attacks are coming from an array of different vectors, and things can happen very quickly. It’s quite possible to deliver five attacks in less than one second. If you understand that each attack can be executed in 100-250 milliseconds, you start to realize the math is not in your favor. Just to get visual input data from your eyes to your brain can take 200-250 milliseconds, which means that it is mathematically impossible to respond to a series of close-quarters attacks unless you’ve done things to really tilt the odds in your favor.
Another thing is that a knife attack is very low-commitment. Quite often in aikido, our attacks are comprised of large, committed movements with a bunch of energy behind them. With a knife, you don’t really need to do that. So, this changes the type of tactics you employ to break balance, to reposition, and to throw or control. I think it’s a fantastic learning experience and the practice is so fun; it’s really a joy to play around with that stuff.
A really satisfying learning experience. Moving onto something perhaps even more fun, do you enjoy martial arts movies?
I do, even though I don’t allocate a lot of my time to watching films at the moment.
Which titles would feature in your Top 5, say?
“Enter the Dragon” is a classic of course, as well as “Seven Samurai”. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a beautiful film and I also really liked “Ip Man”. Although strictly not a martial arts film, I’m a big “Star Wars” fan and those movies have a lot of classical elements of the martial arts in them.
Which martial arts actors do you most admire?
Bruce Lee, of course, was great, and Jackie Chan is fantastic – an amazing movement master. I also have a lot of respect for Jet Li; he’s an amazing martial artist, a great philanthropist and all-around someone I feel truly embodies what it means to be a martial artist. Michelle Yeoh is awesome.
What’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
I am a gaming geek! I grew up with Dungeons and Dragons, other pen and paper role-playing games, and video games. I’m a total gamer nerd at heart.
What about other hobbies do you have outside of martial arts?
I practice yoga and indoor rock climbing, which I view as a 3D movement puzzle. I also play video games, of course. My current favorite is Hearthstone, a digital collectable card game produced by Blizzard Entertainment. Ikazuchi Dojo runs a five-day-a-week aikido program on their corporate campus, by the way.
So, what in life do you really like?
I really like challenges; I like improvement and growth, and I like building things.
And what do you dislike?
Repetitive routines and steady-state stuff is really not my favorite. I’m really resistant to getting into a consistent pattern or routine for an extended period of time.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I would say two things. One is my family – I have an amazing wife and a daughter who I’m very proud of, especially in terms of her character development. I’m also very proud of what I’ve done with Ikazuchi Dojo, although that’s really an accomplishment earned collectively by the dojo’s members.
What are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
Over the next five years there are a few things I would like to focus on. One is developing my own aikido. I feel like I have a pretty good foundation to build on and I’m in a position now where I have access to and guidance from many of the world’s greatest martial arts masters – and I have the time to dedicate to training and research. I really want to develop my own aikido and my own understanding of the art as much as I can over the next five years.
Another thing I want to do is continue to build Ikazuchi Dojo. And by build, I don’t mean necessarily grow the student population massively, but to continue to increase the quality level of what we are doing and making sure we can have the greatest possible positive impact for our students and the aikido community. The third thing I want to do is support the global aikido community as best I can through Aikido Journal.
Sounds like it’s going to be an action-packed half-decade. Can you share with us a couple of budo-wisdom quotes that have shaped and molded you up to this point into who you are today as a person and martial artist?
Sure, here are a few:
- “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” – Morihei Ueshiba
- “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” – Bruce Lee
- “A leader leads by example, not by force.” – Sun Tzu
And one more that’s a little funny but has some deep wisdom in it:
- “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
A very eclectic mix of thoughts there Josh, thank you. What special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and those who know you around the world?
I would just like thank everybody for taking the time to learn more about the art of aikido. We are happy and honoured to be part of the global martial arts community and we hope to build more friendships and a greater level of mutual understanding in the future.
If people would like to find out more about your work and keep up to date with what you’re doing, where’s the best place to go?
Well this has been a real insight and a pleasure, Josh – and certainly our most detailed Aikido-oriented feature to date. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom, keep in touch.
We hope you found this interview with Sensei Josh Gold interesting. What really resonated with you the most? Do you practice Aikido yourself? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Explore more of what other Sensei’s, Shifu’s and Masters have to say by entering KFK’s inter-FUniverse!)